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"In Christ Alone" and Penal Substitution

Friday, November 06, 2020

If there is anything in the worship traditions of the churches of Christ that frustrates me, it is the double standard of scrutiny applied to hymns with content versus hymns with no content.  We have reversed the intent of Colossians 3:16, so that rather than seeking hymns that express a rich indwelling of the word, we primarily are concerned that hymns don’t teach false doctrine.  As long as a hymn doesn’t teach false doctrine, it must be suitable for the congregation!

This goal produces a perverse result.  Hymns that don’t teach anything obviously can’t teach false doctrine, so they slide into the repertoire without objection.  On the other hand, hymns that are rich in Biblical content attract heightened scrutiny because they have something to say.  Because such hymns commonly are written by denominational authors, they sometimes contain a questionable word or line.  Then, brethren who have swallowed the camel of the hymn that says nothing strain at the gnat of ambiguous content.   If only the concern aimed at the latter were directed at the former!

For instance, several months ago, I had a conversation with a brother about the hymn “In Christ Alone”, which I believe to be the strongest hymn yet written in this century.  However, he was concerned that it taught the false doctrine of penal substitution in the line, “But on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.”

For those who aren’t up on their Calvinism, penal substitution is the idea that Jesus did not merely die on the cross in our place.  Instead, He was punished on the cross in our place.  In bearing our sins, He Himself became morally guilty, so that the wrath of God justly fell upon Him.  There is much more to penal substitution than that, and it ties into a number of other Calvinist doctrines (especially the doctrine of eternal security) in complicated and logically intricate ways, but this summary should be enough to make the rest of this post make sense.

Can that couplet in “In Christ Alone” be read as teaching penal substitution?  Undoubtedly.  In fact, I would go further than that.  The authors of “In Christ Alone”, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, are Scripturally knowledgeable Calvinists.  I believe they intended for the couplet to teach penal substitution.

That’s not really the question, though.  In the churches of Christ, we have a looong history of reinterpreting Calvinist hymns to suit our doctrinal convictions.  The last verse of “The Solid Rock”, anyone?

I think it’s perfectly legitimate for us to do that.  The key is that many Calvinist hymns are Scripturally rich, so whatever understanding we apply to the underlying passages, we also can apply to the hymns that quote them.  If we are paying attention at all to the words of “The Solid Rock”, we are doing this when we sing it, and there’s no reason why we can’t do the same to “In Christ Alone”.

I don’t know what connections others make when they sing that section of “In Christ Alone”, but I can’t help but think of the discussion in Romans of the wrath of God.  Romans 1 reports that the wrath of God is revealed against all the unrighteous, but Romans 5 tells us that we can be saved from that wrath through Christ.  Why?  As Isaiah 53:9-10 reports, even though Jesus had done nothing wrong, God was pleased to crush Him and put Him to death as a guilt offering.  If the wrath of God was not satisfied at that point, when was it satisfied?  Indeed, I am reasonably certain that Townend and Getty relied on the NASB rendering of Isaiah 53:11 in writing the couplet.

I have no doubt that some will find this explanation, ahem, unsatisfying.  Similar quibbles attach to “How Deep the Father’s Love”.  In both cases, brethren allow ambiguous language to keep them from singing a doctrinally rich, profoundly meaningful hymn.  I think that’s a shame, particularly when the alternative is too often semiliterate nonsense penned by a praise-band leader who might use his Bible for a pillow but not otherwise. 

Yes, false doctrine can be drawn from hymns.  False doctrine can be drawn from the Bible too.  In neither case should the cure for falsehood be the avoidance of truth.

Reflecting on "Hoods in My Hymnal"

Thursday, September 03, 2020

The other day, Steve Wolfgang sent me a link to this article.  In it, the author points out that James D. Vaughan, founding father of the Southern gospel genre of hymnody (though not the author of “Love Lifted Me”, despite what the article implies) was a leading figure in the local Ku Klux Klan.  James Rowe (who was the author of “Love Lifted Me”) wrote racist lyrics for temperance-movement songs.

This is not terribly surprising.  We are talking about Southern gospel, after all, a worship-music movement which flourished in the states of the former Confederacy a hundred years ago.  By modern standards, both the ones who wrote those hymns and the ones who originally sang them were dyed-in-the-wool racists.  The author implies that we need to “have a conversation” about whether those hymns should remain in the repertoire, the kind of conversation that usually ends with things getting canceled.

Really, though, the issue that the article raises is much larger even than racism.  How do we handle hymns that were written by people with significant spiritual problems?  From the perspective of New-Testament Christianity, the most famous hymnists of all time come with baggage that is as bad or even worse. 

Isaac Watts, author of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and many other great hymns besides, was a hyper-Calvinist minister.  Charles Wesley, who wrote “Love Divine”, was the brother and partner of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church.  Among modern writers, Keith and Kristyn Getty, the authors of “In Christ Alone”, are staunch and vocal Calvinists.  I could say much the same about the authors of literally hundreds of the hymns in our repertoire.

Scripturally speaking, is the false teacher to be preferred to the racist?

One response is to say, “We should not sing such things.”  Unless we approve of your life, we aren’t going to sing your hymn.  However, if we follow through on such a conviction, our repertoire shrinks by at least 95 percent.  Everything from “Abide with Me” to “As the Deer”—gone.  Off to the bonfire it all goes!

I think most brethren would consider such a solution a trifle. . . extreme.  The alternative, which is what all of us do in practice, is to separate the hymn from the hymnist.  I don’t have to agree with everything Isaac Watts stood for to sing “When I Survey.”  I only have to agree with “When I Survey”.  Nor, indeed, am I endorsing anything about Isaac Watts other than the words that I am singing.

So too, I think, with Southern-gospel hymns written by authors with murky pasts.  Yes, they believed, and in some cases wrote, some awful things.  However, if our minds are on the human author when we sing a hymn, our minds are in the wrong place. 

Those hymns are not memorials to Confederate generals or leaders of the KKK.  They are memorials to God.  If we use them for their intended purpose, we are glorifying Him.  To that, what Scriptural objection can be raised?

The 50 Greatest Hymns of All Time, Revised

Monday, May 04, 2020

Based on input from various readers, I’ve removed four hymns and added four others.  The changes are below.  Also, it’s likely that I will offer a “lessons learned” post later in the week.

 

Abide with Me (1847)

All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name (1779)

All People That on Earth Do Dwell (1560)

IN:  Amazing Grace (1779)

Be Still, My Soul (1752)

Be with Me, Lord (1935)

OUT:  Footprints of Jesus (1871)

For the Beauty of the Earth (1864)

Give Me the Bible (1883)

Great Is Thy Faithfulness (1923)

Hallelujah!  Praise Jehovah! (1893?)

Hallelujah!  What a Savior (1875)

He Hideth My Soul (1890)

Higher Ground (1892)

OUT:  How Deep the Father’s Love (1995)

How Firm a Foundation (1787)

I Am Thine, O Lord (1875)

I Need Thee Every Hour (1872)

In Christ Alone (2001)

In the Hour of Trial (1834)

It Is Well with My Soul (1873)

Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer (2001)

IN:  Jesus Loves Me! (1860)

Just As I Am (1834)

Lord, We Come Before Thee Now (1745)

My Jesus, I Love Thee (1862)

Nearer, My God, to Thee (1840)

Nearer, Still Nearer (1898)

IN:  O Thou Fount of Every Blessing (1758)

O Worship the King (1833)

On Zion’s Glorious Summit (1803)

Only in Thee (1905)

Our God, He Is Alive (1966)

Purer in Heart, O God (1877)

IN:  Rock of Ages (1776)

OUT:  Something for Thee (1862)

Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus (1858)

Sun of My Soul (1820)

Sweet By and By (1867)

Sweet Hour of Prayer! (1845)

Take Time to Be Holy (1874)

OUT:  Teach Me Thy Way (1919)

The Battle Belongs to the Lord (1985)

The Last Mile of the Way (1908)

The Solid Rock (1836)

There Is a Habitation (1882)

This World Is Not My Home (1919)

Though Your Sins Be as Scarlet (1887)

‘Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow (1822)

Trust and Obey (1887)

Victory in Jesus (1939)

We Saw Thee Not (1834)

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (1707)

Why Did My Savior Come to Earth? (1892)

The 50 Greatest Hymns of All Time

Friday, May 01, 2020

I generated this list using three criteria:

  1. DOCTRINAL DEPTH.  Does the hymn have something spiritually meaningful to say?  Is its meaning profound or superficial?
     
  2. CONGREGATIONAL SUITABILITY.  Is the hymn simple enough that an average a-cappella congregation (80 in attendance on Sunday morning) can sing it easily?
     
  3. CONGREGATIONAL APPEAL.  Do worshipers enjoy singing this hymn?  Is it widely used?

Additionally, I did not consider (and will not include) any hymn written by me or by anyone I know to avoid introducing bias. 

There are many worthy hymns that did not make the Top-50 cut.  If you think an omitted hymn should be on the list, leave a comment identifying both it and the hymn that you think it should replace.  You may change my mind!

 

Abide with Me (1847)

All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name (1779)

All People That on Earth Do Dwell (1560)

Be Still, My Soul (1752)

Be with Me, Lord (1935)

Footprints of Jesus (1871)

For the Beauty of the Earth (1864)

Give Me the Bible (1883)

Great Is Thy Faithfulness (1923)

Hallelujah!  Praise Jehovah! (1893?)

Hallelujah!  What a Savior (1875)

He Hideth My Soul (1890)

Higher Ground (1892)

How Deep the Father’s Love (1995)

How Firm a Foundation (1787)

I Am Thine, O Lord (1875)

I Need Thee Every Hour (1872)

In Christ Alone (2001)

In the Hour of Trial (1834)

It Is Well with My Soul (1873)

Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer (2001)

Just As I Am (1834)

Lord, We Come Before Thee Now (1745)

My Jesus, I Love Thee (1862)

Nearer, My God, to Thee (1840)

Nearer, Still Nearer (1898)

O Worship the King (1833)

On Zion’s Glorious Summit (1803)

Only in Thee (1905)

Our God, He Is Alive (1966)

Purer in Heart, O God (1877)

Something for Thee (1862)

Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus (1858)

Sun of My Soul (1820)

Sweet By and By (1867)

Sweet Hour of Prayer! (1845)

Take Time to Be Holy (1874)

Teach Me Thy Way (1919)

The Battle Belongs to the Lord (1985)

The Last Mile of the Way (1908)

The Solid Rock (1836)

There Is a Habitation (1882)

This World Is Not My Home (1919)

Though Your Sins Be as Scarlet (1887)

‘Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow (1822)

Trust and Obey (1887)

Victory in Jesus (1939)

We Saw Thee Not (1834)

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (1707)

Why Did My Savior Come to Earth? (1892)

A Gender-Neutral God in Hymns

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The other day, I found myself going through some hymns of hope and comfort that a hymn blogger has been posting daily through the coronavirus pandemic.  The style (organ plus choir) isn’t my thing; from my perspective, you’ve got a nasty instrument drowning out the good parts.  However, the hymns themselves were generally quite good, even the ones we don’t sing, like “All My Hope on God Is Founded”.

In time, I came to this version of “How Firm a Foundation”.  I was particularly interested in it; after all, the very title of my blog comes from the hymn!  Rather than the lyrics I’ve known all my life, though, here’s how the first verse went:

How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in God’s excellent word;
What more can be said than to you God has said,
You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

My first thought was, “Ewww!  Were the hymnal editors allergic to pronouns?”  My second thought was, “No; they’re only allergic to masculine pronouns.”

Gender-neutrality in hymns has been a topic of discussion for several decades if not more.  I find some forms of it to be utterly unobjectionable (writing hymns that refer to both men and women) and others to be mildly so (rewriting older hymns to refer to both men and women).  However, I have serious problems with taking hymns that refer to God as Father and King and rewriting them so that God is no longer even masculine.

First, the only way to justify such a change is to perform some dramatic surgery on the Bible too.  How many times in Scripture is God a He or a Him?  How many times in the New Testament is He the Father?  How many times in the Psalms is He King?  Reading out of a Bible that says such things on the one hand and singing hymns that deny their truth on the other creates massive cognitive dissonance.

(Yes; I am aware that there are Scriptural texts--Isaiah 49:15, for instance--that compare God to a woman.  In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul compares himself to a woman.  That doesn’t mean that Paul was feminine.)

To be quite frank, we live in a society that needs to spend more time considering the patriarchal authority of God, not less.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that the same folks who deny God’s masculinity also reject what the word of God has to say about sex and gender roles (and many other things).  At that point, regardless of what they might think about their “worship”, they are not prostrating themselves before Him in any meaningful sense.  We don’t need hymnals that encourage us to abandon reverence and subjection.  We need the opposite.

Finally, it shows a great deal of disdain for the hymnists of earlier eras, their convictions, and their work.  I’m as sure as I can be that if I had asked Robert Keene (the probable author of “How Firm a Foundation”) if God was masculine, he would have replied incredulously, “Of course!”, and he certainly would not have approved stripping out the evidence of His masculinity from his hymn.

Such lack of respect is par for the course for our amnesiac society.  We are very concerned about diversity and honoring the views of people from the different cultures of our time, but we have zero interest in (dead white male) voices from the cultures of the past.  In fact, we’re so willing to stifle them that we’ll do a hack job on a great hymn, rendering a beautiful line ugly and graceless, just to make sure that it expresses our viewpoint rather than the author’s.  Diversity that ain’t.

In Romans 8:15, Paul notes that we have received a spirit of adoption as sons, by which we cry out, “Abba!  Father!”  If, on the other hand, we no longer are willing to cry out, “Abba, Father!”, well, that too reveals a great deal about the spirit that is in us.

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